.1 Acre Sustainable Market Garden

For my winter project this year I have undertaken the design of a small, sustainable garden either for market or canning. It is far from finished, but thought I would through it out to the blogosphere to get some more input on it.

Design Goals:

  • Replicable: It should be simple and flexible enough to implement in backyards across the country
  • Scaleable: It must be flexible enough to run from several hundred sq ft up to several acres
  • Low/No Input: Long Term fertility is maintained on site with minimum eternal fertilizers through cover crops and no till practices.
  • Low Pest: Ecological Farming practices implemented to reduce pest pressue by attracting and keeping on site populations of beneficial organisms and heavy emphasis on healthy soil for healthy plants.
  • Low Tech: Site to be managed with hand tools and hopefully chicken “tractors” instead of rototillers.  This improves soil, cuts start up costs and reduces carbon footprint.

For starters here is a first blush of the layout:

1/10th Acre Sustainable Veggie Plot

At first glance there is a lot of wasted space. A 4000 sq ft garden with only 1000 sq ft of “productive” beds?! But 33% of the beds are designed to be under long season cover crop at all times- as I get more elegant with my rotations this may be overkill, but my research has shown that the only way to add organic matter is through a perennial cover like alfalfa left for 18+ months.

There is also 1000 sq ft of perennial herb/flower beds to attract benificials that will also produce significant amounts of cut flowers and trace nutrients for the table. This is critical to the long term sustainability of the plot. Without attracting and keeping a strong population of beneficial insects, bacteria and fungus eventually the gardens will fal prey to overwhelming pest invasions. The paths may be overkill and could easily be trimmed from their current 2′ to as little as 1′ on every other path. like Eliot Coleman uses.  I would keep the 5′ access path for harvesting the significant amounts of produce from this garden and for trucking in compost and mulch.

The “wasted” space of perrenial cover crops allows the soil to rest and recharge fertility after being “pulsed” with heavy feeding annual vegetable crops. The hope is that by incorporating so much cover crop and perennials that the plot will add fertility over time without additional inputs.  This has been shown on much larger farms, so I have confidence it will work here as well.

Another specific goal I was trying to design into this layout was a rotation system to significantly reduce the pest pressures of conventional vegetable gardens. Circling the entire perimeter with a diverse mix of flowers designed to attract predatory insects will force any pests to run a gauntlet before reaching the crops. For the same reason, every year the rotation crosses a perennial bed to force any pests that over winter to search far and wide for their food-increasing the likelihood that they will become food themselves in turn. As the rotation crosses the flower bed, it “drops” one bed, once it reaches the “bottom” of its three bed section it will cross back to the top. I tried to show this in the PDF but it got wicked busy. I may try again as this description is rough too. In addition to the rotation confounding pests, the layout ensures that the benificials attracted to the perennial flowers and herbs will never be more than 8 feet away from the annual veggies.

The Rotational System further divides the crops into groups, usually by Plant Family, allowing 2 beds per plant family per year. Following the rotation ensures that 6 years passed between each plant family residing in each bed. Added layers of biodiversity and productivity can be added by incorporating successional plantings in each bed to get two crops, and/or preceding or succeeding each with a short season cover crop to rebuild soil structure. I have been working on this for a week or so in my spare time and it is getting wicked complicated. Eliot Coleman has a solid system set up in his New Market Grower that I am trying to use as a starting block, but getting it all to mesh is a challenge!

This design can be cut in half or more by shortening the beds from 40′ to 20′, 10′ or less, and can be expanded indefinitely by stacking layouts next to each other. To gauge your size need, a 3’x40′ bed will hold 50 tomato plants, but it can also be further divided by other Solanacea like Peppers, Eggplant and Potato. The “root” crops and romaines will also be subdivided- 3×40 will make a lot of carrots!

I also plan on making this a “no-till” using chicken “tractors” to incorporate cover crops and fertilize the beds after harvest and before plantings. By not breaking the soil surface you encourage immensely more productive and diverse soil ecosystems, and it also makes it Peak Proof by taking out the fossil fuels completely. Cover crops will be mown with either a Sycthe or my rechargeable lawn mower, depending if I want to use chop the mulch fine, or carryit away for chicken fodder (oats) or mulch in another bed.

I have 3 more books on this subject in my Winter Reading queue which should help me fill in the holes of the successional plantings in each bed each year, and also to get more specific with the plants I will place in the Perennial Beneficial Beds.

I fill continue to fill in the gaps and add to this page. I also fully intend on putting this design into practice with perhaps two prototypes at the Market Garden this year, and the learnings once I put spade to soil will be legion.


18 Responses

  1. […] .1 Acre Sustainable Market Garden […]

  2. Hey,

    I have had a city garden for the last 4 or 5 years in Roanoke, VA. Our garden was about 12′ x 15′ and we were able to eek out varrying levels of productivity.
    We now live in Southern MD, and have a garden spo about 30′ by 40′ in the subdivision where we live.
    I am interested in doing essentially what you have indicated in your most recent sites with a 4 year rotational garden and chicken tractors and am glad to see that someone else is struggling with some of the same things that I have been.
    Who would think that develloping a crop rotation, garden layout etc. that will work in the long term and will accomodate a chicken tractor would be so intensely confusing?

    It would be extreemly helpful if you could send me your final plan for garden layout, crop rotation, chicken tractor design etc.
    I would be able to implement a simelar project on the east coast and we could compare results.
    This may be a way to substantiate your findings more quickly.
    Please let me know your thoughts… we have a much longer growing season here, and I am in Zone 7 I believe so the outcomes could be different, but interesting none the less.

    I have researched chickens here and find that Buff Orpingtons, RI Reds, or Plymouth Rocks will be the best suited for a small scale chicken tractor life.
    I am thinking of 2 to 4 birds (as they are not allowed in the HOA or the town limits where I live).
    Have you investigated the chicken/sf question for your planned rotation?



    • Rob,

      I was interested in your plans and live in Southern MD too! You wouldn’t happen to live around LaPlata would you?

  3. Tayloe,

    that is great to hear! Those are some fantastic plans! I am finishing my planning in the next 4 weeks and I will send you what I have via email in modifiable documents, the blog will get PDF’s.

    My brief research led me to RI Reds, and I liked the Dominiques as well -it seems that little research has been done on this though. The trick seems to be to get an older breed that still likes to scratch around…. alot! I was also leaning towards dual purpose birds -not becuase we want to eat them, but because in the lifetime of these birds they may be spending some of their time free range and larger birds are less interesting to Raptors hereabouts.

    My current rotation has the garden split in two “mirrored” sections with 1/2 in vegetable production, and the other half completely under cover crop and being tended by chickens. The gardens will swap yearly.

    Will keep you posted!

  4. Rob,

    Thanks for the response.
    I look fwd to seeing what you come up with.

    I finally sat down and did a garden layout with my wife this weekend.
    We are planning a 4 zone rotation.
    Each zone will be about 14′ x 24′.
    I plan to plan a cover crop of some sort of clover around and between plans, and in the rows.
    I plan to size the chicken tractor so that it fits in the rows and can be moved daily.
    I read today that 5 chickens can cover 20square feet per day, so I plan to make my tractor about 8 square feet for the 2 birds that I plan to start with. I think that I may end up needing 4 chickens so that the entire garden can be covered in one month. I am also considering a rabbit tractor, but plan to wait and see how it goes with the chickens.

    I have had luck in the past sprinkling grass clippings from the lawn in a thin layer over the exposed ground to prevent weeds, and to hold moisture. I’m not sure how this will work out with the cover crop of clover, as this will be my first stab at that, but one site that I just read on chicken tractors says that it is good to rake in the areas that you move them off of and cover it with some straw or hay to hold in the nitrogen.

    We should be planting here in about 5 weeks.

    Look fwd to hearing about your plan,


  5. Rob,

    I forgot,

    I would also be interested in your plan for tracking the output of your garden… a simple scale?
    Let me know, because I would like to mimic it on my end if possible to see how our results compare as we go.



  6. Tayloe, I love your enthusiasm! I do plan on tracking most of my yields with a scale -and then entering it into a spreadsheet so that I can track productivity by sq ft/plant and compare that year by year. The exception might be leaf crops, which may be by the bushel. A laptop is becoming a farmers tool I think. I am also a dork that think to much.

    I feel it is essential to track soil fertility overtime to ensure I am maintaining and/or increasing so annual, and perhaps bi-annual soil tests will be in order. The soil I am starting in has been under perennial pasture for a decade, and was a large manure pile before that, so I am starting off with what I hope to find to be very high levels to begin with. In time I hope to test it on less fertile ground to see if the system can build fertility in denuded soils like a suburban backyard.

  7. I am currently designing a crop rotation for our college farm, nice to see others doing the same. I would love to see what everyone comes up with as the season progresses. We also track our production, we weigh all harvests and this year will be able to track them back to plantings through better record keeping.

    Just another thought, Turkens and Barred Rocks are great chicken breeds. They are very hardy, good natured, do well out on pasture. I have ordered more of each to replace the ones I lost over the winter due to weasel kill.

  8. […] .1 Acre Sustainable Market Garden […]

  9. Hi,

    Great site!(!!). I was hoping you could give me some advice 🙂

    We are in the process of planning to start our farm (read “garden”). We have 25 acres. 10-20 we a planning to return to trees. The remaining 5 we would like to farm. Our long term goal is to have some small animals, orchard, perennial and market garden. The market garden would not be more than 1 acre, and would start as 1/4 or 1/2 an acre. I am really keen on adopting a Permaculture-style integrated design. I am also in the process of learning about biodynamics, and plan to incorporate it’s holistic approach into our methods.

    My questions:

    How do you get enough mulch to *initially* mulch 1/2 acre of land? We have access to a small trailer that attaches to a car. Using a car trailer does not seem to scale however. I have thought of buying a large truck to move mulch. Renting a truck is prohibitively expensive. It seems in the first year one could collect leaves, and garden waste from towns and cities to get enough, or buy straw/hay. This process would not stop until mulch could be grown on the farm. This requires field equipment. So for me the decision is: Truck, or field equipment.

    Do you think that mulching scales up to 100+ CSA level? I have never seen an example of this approach at a large scale. Do you know of one?

    Why did you buy a Grillo tractor? Do you use intensive mulch? or why did you opt to till?

    If you were going to use mulch as a gardening method (with not till) what equipment would you invest in?

    I feel like I’m at the point of deciding to go with mulch, or till. Either one appears to require some capital investment. I am really leaning towards mulch, however nobody around here does this method at a large scale.

    Any insight would be greatly appreciated.

    Pete Huerter – Picton, ON.

  10. Wow. I got some great info from you all. I have an acre vegetable garden. I am going to be selling 1/2 and whole bushels of veggies to offices not too far off. I also can a lot. I even make my own pizza sauce. We also have a 50 foot greenhouse. Ive already started my 140 tomato plants,Im not sure how much lettuce and green and red peppers from seed. We plow our garden in the fall, and then in the spring we till. But this year we are going to use the tractors to do the work. Im installing a garden drip irrigation system too. But I don’t much. Usually I till so deep nothing comes up all summer. Thanks, Ann

  11. Greetings thanks for the information. I am looking for atracking system to keep track of harvest, water, planting and replanting after harvest. Do any of you have an idea. I was hoping for a one sheet work sheet I could number code the rows and maybe color code the watering. Thanks for the help

  12. Take a look at the book section over @ Bountiful Gardens. http://www.bountifulgardens.org

    Their Ecology Action Research papers have provided a wealth of information to me, and judging by what you are attempting above would be good reading for you also.

  13. guinea fowl are all you need for a pest free garden. They require a little work and investment to make sure they stay around. We’ve done this for ten years now. If it moves they will eat it, and they will leave your plants alone. There is a website of a guy who raises them and has a book on the subject I forget the name. It’s probably guineafowl dot com or something like that. There’s no need to buy the book if you already know how to raise guinea fowl so they always come back to their roost at night.

    • Hear good things about guinea fowl, but keeping them is a challenge given how prone to roaming as you said. This article was for a .1 acre sustainable garden – 4000 sq ft – keeping a clutch of gregarious guineas in such a small space would be near impossible. And these gardens are designed for suburban landscapes ruling out such large (and loud!) birds.

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